By Erick Johnson
When the coronavirus pandemic forced Frances and Andre Guichard to close their Gallery Guichard firm in Bronzeville last year, the future of their lifelong dream of gallery ownership grew uncertain. Without customers frequenting their multicultural gallery at 436 E. 47th St., the Guichards did not know whether their business would survive during the pandemic.
They were in for a real surprise.
After putting their works online with special software they created, things changed. Interest surged and the sales started rolling in from customers around the country. Soon, the world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York came calling.
The pandemic, which had claimed many businesses in Chicago and across the nation, has been a blessing to the Guichards. In the last year, the pandemic has provided opportunities that gave them national exposure and a booming business that has left them awestruck while the doors of their business remained closed. Call it the miracle on 43rd Street.
Today the Guichards are enjoying a fresh rebirth of their gallery that has them dreaming of bigger possibilities.
Last week, on May 28, a handful of breathtaking pieces from their Bronzeville gallery were unveiled at the busy Sterling Bay’s One Two Pru office building at 130 E. Randolph St. across from Millennium Park. They were part of the real estate investment firm building’s new exhibit, “African Diaspora.” The exhibit tells the story of the city through thought-provoking, mixed media art, from its long history of jazz and blues to the recent isolation and introspection because of the pandemic.
Several of the pieces were created by the Guichards themselves, which they created after a trip to South Africa many years ago. Thousands of employees who work in the building are now getting a glimpse of the gallery’s art as they come and go from their offices in one of the most high-profile areas in Chicago.
It’s the latest achievement that provides more exposure and opportunities for the couple, who for years worked hard to grow their gallery into a masterpiece, with few resources.
Today, a growing pool of larger resources and exposure have given the Guichards bigger dreams, as they expand their art clientele that includes white customers who are appreciating African Art more than ever with the changing racial climate amid the fallout from the death of George Floyd, killed by a Minneapolis police officer a year ago.
It all started when the coronavirus struck Chicago last March. After Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order on March 21, the Guichards, like many business owners, were forced to close their business. For the Guichards, the closure was especially challenging as that meant fewer opportunities to attract customers.
Before the pandemic, the gallery would host exhibition openings to entice Chicago residents and art lovers, some of whom live outside the Bronzeville community. Andre Guic- hard said attendance would average 4,500 people.
The uncertainty of the pandemic and the governor’s stay-at-home order initially seemed to doom Gallery Guichard. “We really started out nervous, ok now we’re closing down,” said Frances Guichard.
The pandemic forced the Guichards to operate their business by appointment only, but it wasn’t enough to maintain the business’ revenues that they achieved before the health crisis. They began thinking of ways to keep interest and sales flowing at the gallery.
The couple began calling art galleries and art exhibitions organizers around the country, including the world-renowned Art Basel on Miami Beach. They found that many were using slide show technology online, which they said made it difficult to sell their art because it didn’t connect with enthusiasts.
The Guichards looked at a 3D technology application used in real estate. They combined it with slide-show technology that other galleries use to showcase their works. The result was a unique online application that gave art lovers an experience that made them feel like they were physically inside the Gallery Guichard while in their own home.
That led the Guichards to create a Virtual Exhibition Catalog, which showcases the firm’s numerous pieces with the click of a button on the keyboard. “It has been so successful that it changed our business model completely,” said Andre Guichard.
“During pre-COVID, after you had an opening, 30 days later you couldn’t see these works of art in the same way forever. Now in our Virtual Exhibition Catalog, those stay exhibit perfect. You can ‘walk’ into the gallery and walk around, go to the artwork.”
Frances Guichard said during Zoom meetings, people would be impressed by the gallery’s artwork and would buy paintings to furnish their homes that became their offices during the pandemic. She said art was important for them to establish a more professional environment as they held business meetings in their homes on Zoom with their clients. She said the gallery’s artworks became a coveted item and sparked competition among some executives.
The exposure kept the Guichards busy with new sales orders during the pandemic. With Stephen Mitchell as their business partner and co-owner, the three spent many days carefully packing artwork in crates to ship to customers across the country.
Andre Guichard said before the pandemic, the gallery sold 75 pieces of art in 2019. He said during the pandemic, the gallery sold about 100 pieces. But the exposure to new fans would prove even more valuable.
One of the new fans is New York City’s world-renowned Metropolitan Museum of Art, known to millions as simply “The Met.” The museum, which has one of the world’s largest art archival collections, called the Guichards, seeking to add them to their records.
The move is considered the first step in The Met showcasing the Guichard’s pieces among The Met’s two million works of art. For officials at The Met, the inclusion will be an achievement in an ongoing effort to include Black art, which historically has been viewed as “primitive” as Black artists were shut out of the museum’s exhibitions.
Curators and museum officials say the George Floyd murder and subsequent protests have sparked an interest in African American art in exhibitions designed by museum curators across the country.
The Guichards said they cataloged each of their artworks into a book that was sent to The Met. They said they also gave The Met the direct links to their website so they could visit each one of those.
“We also sent them a format they can see and use for their digital catalog,” Frances Guichard said. “So the pandemic really has been an amazing opportunity for us.”
“The Met was a big deal for us,” she said. “Here we were during COVID and not having any way of getting out our information. Here we are with our virtual exhibitions and people loving the exhibitions.
“We had people from all over the world coming to our Zoom meetings and seeing all the works.
People would see our intro videos, see us ‘drop down’ into the gallery and then see artists talking about their works and being able to actually visually see the artists.”
The Guichards said they will continue to host virtual exhibitions as they prepare to reopen their gallery. They also plan art exhibitions inside Sterling Bay’s other properties to continue expanding their clientele and exposing artistic compositions to a new crop of art lovers.
The Guichard’s latest exhibition at Sterling Bay’s One Two Pru office building came about in 2020 after they were contacted by Keiana Barrett, director of diversity and strategic development for Sterling Bay. Seeking to expand its commitment to diversity and inclusion, Sterling Bay in 2019 hired Barrett, who was the national press secretary for the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.
Andre Guichard said he was “very surprised” by the phone call. For over six months, the Guichards and Sterling Bay executives combed through thousands of art pieces in the gallery’s collection.
They chose 21 pieces that would be first in an ongoing African Diaspora exhibition that will include rotating pieces of artwork. The Guichards also toured several of Sterling Bay’s office properties before they chose the firm’s One Two Pru building.
“We are excited to partner with Gallery Guichard and to transform One Two Pru’s lobby into an engaging cultural experience for tenants and visitors as we all begin to emerge from the pandemic,” said Andy Gloor, CEO of Sterling Bay.
“Sterling Bay is a proud supporter of the arts and incorporates works from local and global artists in a creative and meaningful manner across our commercial spaces.
Through our collaboration with Gallery Guichard, we are hoping to expand representation and exposure for Black artists and celebrate the diverse, dynamic cultures that define our city.”
On May 19, the Crusader was given a special preview of the exhibition, which includes the Gallery Guichard’s art on several separate floors of the building, including the lobby. The 21 pieces of art include colorful canvasses and ethnic sculptures. Andre Guichard, a self-taught artist who has painted over 2,500 artworks during a 25-year career, also has works in the exhibition.
“What I love about this exhibit is that it proves that our work is not monolithic, meaning that the work has thought in their landscapes, abstracts and still life.”
The gallery features works from Frances and Andre Guichard, Stephen ‘Sayo’ Olalekan, and Adam Guic- hard. Frances’ art is inspired by her and her husband’s third trip to South Africa in 2010.
It’s a painted canvas with images of landscapes and mountains that were owned by the African people before they were owned by the Apartheid government.
One stunning piece of art in the exhibition is from Nigerian artist Olalekan. He worked for two months to complete the work for the gallery. Called “Rhythmic Sculptures,” his work features six sculptures inside frames. Olalekan said his work is reminiscent of the human body but depicted in a more free-flowing light.
“[It’s] just the complexity of human minds and body, and then how they function together.
So just finding a way to simplify them through my heart, that’s what I did.”